The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society: Its Organizational History and Internal Historiography

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By Elizabeth Hyman,

Assistant Processing Archivist, HIAS Archives Project; current Photo &
Reference Archivist, American Jewish Historical Society

Over the course of three years, in a project funded by
HIAS in partnership with the American Jewish Historical Society, archivists at
AJHS will organize, describe and make available to the public more than a
thousand boxes of historical administrative files (primarily 1955-1990s). These
files document the work of HIAS staff and lay leadership as they fulfilled the
HIAS mission to rescue and resettle refugees and migrants. In addition, this
project includes the creation of a database of clients who registered with HIAS
between 1955 and 2000; it is  accessible via a search screen, through
which former HIAS clients, genealogists and family members are able to
determine whether HIAS holds restricted case files on specific people. Learn
more at the HIAS Project Page:


HIAS Letterhead from
the 1952 Annual Report

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid
Society, or HIAS, is an amalgamation of the many Jewish immigrant aid societies
which operated between about 1880 through 1950—from the mass emigration of
Eastern European Jews to the United States, to the crises in Europe, the Middle
East, and North Africa before, during, and after World War II.

HIAS, in its official reports and publications
dating from 1911 onward, claims to have been founded in years ranging from 1870
to 1884. An Annual Report from 1911 set the founding date at 1888, while an annual report from 1914 gives 1908-1909. Documents from 1948, 1954, 1959, and 1964 all claim 1884 as
the founding date. Yet, 1884 does not correspond to any identifiable late
nineteenth century Jewish aid organization. HIAS presently—according to their
website—uses 1881 as their founding date. 

The HIAS Archives team—tasked with
processing the last 60 years of HIAS’ institutional archives—looked back
through our records, along with the earlier HIAS records
in the custody of the YIVO Institute, and secondary sources, to determine the
veracity of these dates. Through our research, we determined that 1882 is the most
accurate date of the organization’s founding; our conclusion is corroborated in
historian Mark Wischnitzer’s Visas to Freedom: the History of HIAS.

To arrive at this conclusion, we had to look very closely at
the immigrant aid societies formed by (primarily German) Jews to receive the ever-increasing
numbers of their Eastern European coreligionists. And the picture which emerged
from our research is not of
a singular organization working to aid new arrivals, but an ad-hoc collection
of groups, quickly forming and merging and re-merging in response to the unique
challenges encountered by the new arrivals. The earliest of these
organizations was the first Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society, established in 1870.
The Russian Emigrant Relief Committee was established in 1881, and the second Hebrew
Emigrant Aid Society formed out of said organization later that year. The
Hebrew Emigrant Auxiliary Society—which Wischnitzer refers to as “the nearest
approach to a parent organization of HIAS”—was founded in 1882.[1]

HIAS continued on,
absorbing related immigrant aid organizations in Baltimore, Boston, and
Philadelphia. In 1927 it joined forces with the Jewish Colonization Association
(the JCA and/or ICA), and the Jewish Emigration Committee of Europe, known as
Emigdirect, to form HICEM. HICEM acted as HIAS’ international arm, and was
instrumental in their work conducted during the Second World War.

After the war, HICEM
dissolved, and individual overseas HIAS offices took over the complex task of
resettling the Jewish survivors and Displaced Persons of Europe, and later, of
the Middle East and North Africa. In 1954, HIAS merged with the United Service
for New Americans (USNA), and the Migration Department of the American Jewish
Joint Distribution Committee to form the United HIAS Service.

Today, it is simply “HIAS.”

Other organizations founded in this period Hachnosis Orchim in 1889—which changed its name to the Hebrew Sheltering House
Association in 1907; and the Voliner-Zhitomer Aid Society in 1902, which
quickly changed its name to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. In 1909, the
Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society merged with the Hebrew Sheltering House
Association, calling itself the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society.  

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